In the early 1990s, as China was already in its second decade into Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, Shanghai-based Yu Youhan quickly rose to fame as one of the nation's leading Political Pop artists. As the nation was facing a period of extraordinary economic and cultural change, Yu's inspired appropriations of conventional communist imagery, combined with Western and domestic "pop" forms, quickly brought him international attention.
White Cat, Black Cat (Lot 1302) is a satire of what may be the most famous quote by Deng Xiaoping said at the Guangzhou conference in 1961, about ideological pragmatism, "I don't care if it's a white cat or a black cat. It's a good cat as long as it catches mice." This was interpreted to mean that being productive in life is more important than whether one follows a communist or capitalist ideology. In this imagined simple narrative scene, Mao and Deng amicably shake hands and exchange a pictorial speech bubble. Borrowing from the aesthetic language of Pop Art and elements from Chinese folk art, Yu represents a message of humour, optimism and the readiness accepting the inevitable shifting ideological changes that is founded on its own distinct native roots in the context of Chinese history and visual culture.
Unlike many of the other practitioners of Political Pop, Yu, born in the 1940s, trained as an artist before the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) rather than after. His training and education were aborted by the Cultural Revolution, but he sustained his interest by relying on the propaganda posters of the era as inspiration. Instead of taking up interests in Western pop artists, Yu inclined towards the colour field experimentation and painterly expression of Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh.
Yu appropriated political imagery in his works as early as 1988. In Mao Image in Rose (Lot 1301) and Mao (Lot 1303), we can see here how the artist has fully internalized both the standardized imagery of Chinese propaganda, as well as the flattened color fields that one finds in the works of Matisse and C?zanne. For Western Pop artists such as Andy Warhol, it is a question of appetite for mass-produced consumer products and concepts of celebrity when appropriating the image of Mao. For Yu, the historical past is presented as a fact that he embraces with the smiling irony of patterns and colours drawn from cheap fabrics to cigarette packing. In such an image, Yu successfully blurs the cultural terms of 'high' 'low' 'elitist' and 'democratic', creating a lively visual experience that seems filled more with affection than with critique. As a result, Yu effectively has domesticated Mao's image, suggestive of his continued popularity and cult-like status, one that was passionately revived and rendered nearly to the status of kitsch by the growth of consumer culture in China.